Whoever said there’s no specific age at which one can become an entrepreneur probably had some of these women in mind who not only successfully started their businesses quite ‘late’ in life, but also realised their dreams of becoming aatmanirbhar, or self-sufficient.
Ahead of Women’s Day, let us look at a few ‘super grandmoms’ from across the country who are running their own ventures or mentoring/supervising them, some with a little support from their family and well-wishers.
Harbhajan Kaur, 94
The force behind Harbhajan’s, a food startup based in Chandigarh
Chandigarh-based Harbhajan Kaur has been a foodie since childhood—although in those days, being a foodie meant eating simple yet delicious homecooked food. Kaur inherited a lot of the recipes passed down generations in her family and continued the legacy in her own way. Over the years, she has been instrumental in binding the family across generations through her delicacies, which are not only limited to her signature besan barfi, but much more, including season’s specials like different types of halwas, achaars, chutneys, sharbats and jams.
One fine day, closer to turning 90, Kaur happened to have a candid conversation with her youngest daughter, Raveena Suri, about how life had been so far. Kaur, whose family, children and grandchildren are all settled and busy in their respective lives, also spoke about her unfulfilled desires. “She expressed her desire to not sit idle at home and perhaps make a living for herself. She wanted to know how it feels to be independent,” says Supriya Malhotra Suri, Kaur’s grand-daughter-in-law, who helps in marketing/branding as well as fulfilling orders. Raveena then suggested her mother to do what she had been doing all her life and make the world taste her delicacies. It started with one or two fortnightly pop-ups in Chandigarh. “Her stuff sold over-the-counter instantly and she received so much love. Thereafter, orders started pouring in and we fulfilled them all from our heart and our home kitchen,” adds Supriya. And thus was born Harbhajan’s sometime around 2016-2017.
They are currently working towards having a more organised structure in terms of a business setup. According to Suri, what has primarily worked for them is Kaur’s inspirational story in addition to the consistency and taste of her products. Kaur’s story also became viral when Mahindra Group chairman Anand Mahindra took to Twitter last year to call her the ‘entrepreneur of the year’. “Until last year, when she was covered across the national press, we felt the need to have her face put to an audience,” she adds. However, the journey has not been all rosy. Kaur faces challenges given the physical labour required in day-to-day operations of the business. “Fortunately, she has a good support system. For us, her health is the priority, as well as focusing on customer orders. Some days, it isn’t all rosy, but we sail through and with the encouragement she receives, the next day is always better than the previous one,” says Suri.
Rajinder Kaur Chatha, 92
The mentor of Delhi-based Ammiji’s, a culinary ingredients brand
Rajinder Kaur Chatha, or Ammiji, as her grandchildren call her, is 92 years old (although she doesn’t know when her birthday is). She was born in Amritsar, one of the middle children in a large family. Education was not a priority for the girls of the family, so she barely completed her schooling. Chatha was, in fact, not very interested in going to school either—she preferred spending time cooking, sewing or knitting. Married when she was 20, Chatha spent her life as a homemaker, making sure her children and grandchildren were well-fed.
When she was a young bride, though, her husband was busy setting up a new factory and she was often left to her own devices. That is when she sought comfort in a cup of tea and came up with a recipe for chai masala that yielded, according to her, the perfectly fragrant cup of tea. “It is that very masala—used in the household for over 60 years now—that I made from her recipe for the first time in 2015. I posted about that masala in a Facebook group I was a part of,” says granddaughter Amrita Chatwal, who teamed up with Chatha to start Ammiji’s, a culinary ingredients brand, in 2017. “A couple of years later, the owner of that (Facebook) group approached me and asked me if I’d be interested in retailing that masala online.
I called up Ammiji, and she expressed her doubts about people wanting to invest in something that could easily be made at home. But my father convinced her that not everyone had the time or the resources to make everything at home like she did. So she gave her consent and Ammiji’s was born. For two years, we were selling chai masala through an online platform,” Chatwal adds. Although Chatha doesn’t have an active role in the business apart from supervising production of their papad-wadiyan, she is their figurehead and mentor.
By the end of 2019, the team realised that Ammiji’s needed to be a standalone entity if they were to grow. “We started building our website and planned to launch it in March 2020, but the lockdown delayed those plans and we finally went live in June 2020,” says Chatwal.
Ammiji’s, which ships all over India, has an online D2C business model—customers place their orders directly on the website and these are shipped through courier partners. Apart from pickles and chutneys, they also offer chai masala, spreads, spice blends, sweet treats, among others. The team started with an investment of `2 lakh, which included an e-commerce-enabled website and raw materials and packaging for their products. “We’ve had orders from as close as the street next to ours in Delhi and as far as Meghalaya and Kerala. We will soon be adding international shipping too,” says Chatwal.
Pratibha Kanoi, 67
Founder of Mommy’s Kitchen, a cloud kitchen with a focus on Italian cuisine
Mumbai-based Pratibha Kanoi was a homemaker until she started Mommy’s Kitchen at the age of 67 in May last year. Having spent the initial part of her life in Bangkok, Kanoi was exposed to international cuisines and had seen thin-crust pizzas being made. Seeing her passion for cooking and baking, her husband Shriprakash Kanoi gifted her an oven, double the size of a washing machine, which was bought in an auction. She used to make giant thali-sized pizzas from scratch and send them to friends and relatives on special occasions. Everyone used to encourage her to start a pizza business. However, her duties as a homemaker and the time taken to raise three children took precedence over her aspirations to be an entrepreneur.
Things, however, changed when she felt a void after her husband passed away in 2017. To keep herself engrossed, she did yoga, meditation and even attended satsangs. Then came the pandemic in 2020 and as the lockdown was imposed, she started to cook food and pamper her grandchildren. One day, to celebrate a special family occasion, she made her ‘famous’ pizza after many years. The family was thrilled and asked her to start her own pizza business, which would also give more meaning to her life.
Within a week, her sons had designed and arranged everything, from the packaging and menu to equipment needed, and Mommy’s Kitchen was born on May 2, 2020. Mommy’s Kitchen is a single-brand, multi-location, delivery-only, independent cloud kitchen model, with a focus on Italian cuisine, serving delectable handmade gourmet pizzas and pastas. A bootstrapped startup, all the funds were sourced internally through family savings. “During the lockdown, while most of the quick-service restaurants and centralised kitchens were struggling to stay afloat, with many even having to shut shop, we took a calculated risk opening in the pandemic situation, with a clear ‘affordable loss’ in mind.
The target audience were people who wanted a unique product experience away from the regular fast-food chains, with a clear focus on hygiene, quality and taste,” says her eldest son Vikaas Kanoi, adding that in the past eight to nine months, Mommy’s Kitchen has grown 3x. Initially, the average order value was about Rs 1,800 with 10-12 orders per week. Currently, it is serving more than 50-60 orders per day. “With an established client base of over 2,300 unique customers and with repeat orders, the kitchen is buzzing,” says Vikaas.
Kokila Parekh, 79
Founder of KT Chai Masala, a Mumbai-based tea masala powder brand
Well-known among her friends and family for her cooking skills, Kokila Parekh, who has one granddaughter, would always be lauded for making a secret masala powder to be added to tea or milk. “She has been making this masala for over 60 years now and has been giving it to friends and family who really enjoy it,” says her son Tushar Parekh with whom she currently lives in Mumbai.
However, it was not until the coronavirus epidemic and the subsequent lockdowns last year that Parekh decided to start a business to keep herself occupied. “During the lockdowns, when all of us were working from home, we thought of going commercial with this masala and make it a brand,” says Tushar. When it came to selecting a name for the brand, Parekh settled for KT Chai Masala, short for ‘Kokila and Tushar’s Chai Masala’. “As we started during the lockdown, there were many challenges that we faced, from obtaining necessary licences to logistics,” says Tushar, adding, “However, we have been fortunate and by God’s grace, we have got tremendous response from across India.”
Within two-and-a-half months of their inception last year, KT Chai Masala touched a customer base of 2,500 from around the country, and has shipped orders to everywhere, from Srinagar to Andaman and Nicobar Islands. “We have also started with distributorship in many states and look forward to going global and building our brand everywhere possible,” says Tushar.
Talking about his mother, Tushar says she is a self-motivated women who has always been very enthusiastic to start something new. “Age is just a number for her. In fact, in her team of production, all are women,” he adds.
So is there any advice she would like to offer budding entrepreneurs? “There is no age to start something one likes. Follow your passion; success will come along with it.”
Cryspil K Sangma, 72
Founder and head designer of accessories brand Cryspil’s Creations
Cryspil K Sangma handcrafts waste material into ethnically-inspired accessories. In the process, she is fulfilling her dream of sustainable fashion nestled in the rich culture and traditions of the A’chiks, or the Garos, one of the three major indigenous tribes of Meghalaya. Sangma is the founder and head designer of Cryspil’s Creations, which produces eco-friendly, handcrafted, affordable and non-conventionally-designed accessories.
But let’s start at the beginning. Sangma was born in Derek, Assam, in 1948, but shifted to Tura in neighbouring Meghalaya for higher studies and settled there permanently thereafter. After the death of her husband, Rinder R Marak, in 1984, she became the sole guardian for her five children. “She had to engage herself in various business and experimenting with her creativity was one way to earn a living. She was already good at stitching and knitting, so her skills came to her rescue,” says 29-year-old Balsara K Sangma, her eldest granddaughter .
In 2000, Sangma started using waste paper, especially old calendars, liquor bottle covers and wires, to make various types of handicrafts like traditional accessories (rigitok, kadesil, kakam, etc), Garo modern attire (skirts, tops, shorts, chunnis), Garo traditional attire (ambeng tops, lengtis), koks (Garo baskets), wall hangers and bags. “All her products are made manually without the use of any machine. She works with two helpers who assist her in rolling the paper. Currently, she is focusing more on handcrafting handbags since they are more in demand,” says Balsara.
Going forward, Sangma has several plans. She recently appointed full-time workers to increase the production and expand her business to target premium buyers. Sangma would also like to urge youngsters and fellow older women to never give up on their dreams. “She would like to convey the message that it’s never too late to start something you are passionate about,” says Balsara.
Kunal Doley is a freelancer